God spoke. And not just the world, but the Bible too came into existence. Then again, Isaiah, Luke, and Paul also spoke, using human voices and tools to do the work we’ve come to expect words to do. It’s been an interesting partnership. Some of us have wanted to consider only one side or the other in this co-endeavor, preferring to think of the Bible as simply and clearly God’s Word, or else discounting the divine and focusing exclusively on varied expressions of ancient religious experiences of . . . something.
But the best and most interesting way to see the Bible has always been to embrace it as fully human and fully divine at the same time. These are our own words on some great godly errand. If we take seriously what the Bible says about itself (insofar as it talks about itself), then the Bible is a divine speech act—a collection of words meant to do things on God’s behalf, to effect change and inaugurate new realities. Yet God has chosen to do all this in and through regular people doing regular human things. Some angry prophet denounces the injustice he sees. A worried leader dictates some letters. Storytellers capture and hold audiences with their skillful narrations. A visionary somehow transcribes his fantastical dreams and nightmares into language, so others might catch a glimpse. Our words, God’s work.
For a long time now, human words have been more than bare symbols of basic meaning. Maybe that’s what they were when we first started using them. But we’ve learned how to shape those sounds and intonations in special ways to add depth and strength, crafting more powerful and moving expressions of things like pain and humor, beauty and pathos. With these new, more thoughtful combinations of the building blocks of language we created literary genres—unique ways of fashioning fresh structures for the delivery of more meaningful words. Thus we moved beyond flat and lifeless statements of facts to words that sing or mourn or drive home or surprise—words that do more than merely inform. We found ways to use these carriers of meaning to cross the empty spaces that arise between us. Rightly employed, words allow us to commune together in our yearning for that deeper understanding that just might enable transformation. Not merely to know, but to see and to feel and then to do.
It was not a happy moment, then, when modernity imposed a new form on the Bible, changing its songs and letters, stories and wisdom into a holy reference book with endless columns of numbered, neutered lists of propositions. Much of the literary power drained out of the Bible, its sacred words straight-jacketed into unnatural channels. This template changed what we thought the Bible was, and therefore what we thought we were supposed to do with it.
In theory, the modern critical study of the Bible was supposed to put more emphasis on its human origins, but this happened in a mostly sad and distorted kind of way. We became preoccupied with determining the originating sources of the Bible, resulting in not a little disdain for the church and its theology. The dark hope appeared to be that if some prehistory of the text could be discovered—some natural explanation of how these words got there—this would demonstrate that God wasn’t involved in the process.
In the heated battles between left and right that followed, in which the Bible was either smugly attacked or desperately defended, a key casualty was often the wonder, power, and emotion of the words themselves. We lost touch with what they once did and could do again if only we would let them. In the smoke of our warfare, the more interesting and determinative human aspects of the sacred text were no longer seen. The Bible was either truth or fantasy. But where then is the creativity and flavor and liveliness of its language, embedded in ancient literary forms, doing great and mighty work?
‘What Was It Like?’
Sarah Ruden’s feisty, iconoclastic, but ultimately winsome rebellion against our just-the-facts-ma’am approach to Scripture reading begins with the full acknowledgment of a very human Bible. The Face of Water is a book about what is so often lost in our modern translations: “sound, literary imagery, emotion, and ultimately, thought and experience—flattening out the inspiring expressiveness of the original.” But this is not a book of lament. Ruden’s critique is mostly implicit in the fresh expressions of key biblical passages, along with the accompanying explanations, that make up the heart of her work. She spends her time and energy showing us how it should, or at least could, be done. Her point is more to show than to tell what translation can accomplish.
Aesthetics, she says, seems to be the great factor disregarded by the modern mind. A close attentiveness to the original texts reveals that these words were carefully chosen and artfully deployed. So what would happen if we were to be just as careful and artful in the way we choose to present these words today? Ruden is asking translators to wrestle with more than meaning. She is making the case for doing the intense and challenging work of digging as deeply as possible into ancient worlds so we can once again feel the Bible, not just know things from it. Again and again she asks, “What was it like?”
There is no easy assumption of a straightforward one-to-one correspondence between what the Bible says and what we hear today. It’s simple enough to produce the kind of “literal” translation that is so often confused with “accuracy” these days. No, Ruden fully appreciates the very real distance between us and the biblical authors. We must start, she says, with the recognition of the unknowability of ancient people’s words and worlds. Only this acknowledgement will give us the proper mindset for working hard and working smart to somehow bridge the gap.
What is needed is the commitment to establishing a kind of literary relationship with those who gave us the Scriptures—as Ruden describes it, “a relationship with them as clever and imaginative people.” This is precisely what she doesn’t see in so many of our contemporary Bible renderings. Ruden is kicking the tires of these versions and finding them seriously deflated—flat presentations filled with predictable phrasings and anemic construals.
Ruden herself is that fascinating person who combines full admission of her shortcomings (“my barely successful stint as a PhD student in Harvard’s classics department”) with a bedrock confidence that empowers her to take on those who, on paper at least, might be seen as better credentialed or more qualified. (Her record as a translator of ancient texts, however, clearly establishes her considerable talent.) Boldly, then, she takes up seven pairs of well-known biblical passages from three different angles.
In part one, Ruden opens the discussion of the fundamental character of these texts, using these pairs to consecutively consider grammar (“it’s Legos, not rocks”), vocabulary, style, poetry, authorial voice, “big conversation,” and humor. These chapters first relay the King James translation, but only as a launching pad for the real discussion about how ancient languages do their stuff. The effort is always directed toward getting inside the words, seeing how they work, and, more than anything, what they do. Ruden’s basic understanding is that the Bible is “authoritative performance literature.” So our job is to seek more than “bare lexical projections into the year Now.” Our real need is to understand the show.
In parts two and three we get to see what it looks like when Ruden takes up the role of literary producer herself. Here she unveils her own translations of the 14 passages, along with an account of her use of scholarly resources and methods. Ruden’s own way of explaining her work, after yet another self-deprecation (“I know my third-rate place”), is that she’s giving us a glimpse into how our Bible words actually come to be: “. . . as a translator I am on the toiling end of the literary enterprise most of the time—mopping the floor, stocking the salad bar—there are worse-informed people you could consult if you want to know what goes on in the kitchen.”
We see a fine example of Ruden’s translating genius in her proposal for recapturing the resonating freshness of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew’s version):
Father, our father in the heavens above,
Spoken in holiness must be your name.
Into the world must come your kingdom,
And into being whatever you have willed,
In heaven the same way as here on earth.
The loaf of bread, our every next loaf, give it to us today,
And free us from our debts,
Once we have—just as we have—set our debtors free.
And don’t, we beg you, take us into the ordeal—
No, save us, save us from the Evil One.
Ruden’s writing is delightful, her overall proposal provocative, and her examples compelling. Put it all together, and we have a strong jolt to our complacent and comfortable acceptance of Bibles that say the same old things the same old way. As Ruden says, it’s not just what the Bible means, but how it means it. In The Face of Water, we have our invitation to reading the Bible as a fully human book once again.
Glenn R. Paauw is the director of the Institute for Bible Reading, and the author of Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well (InterVarsity Press).